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Discovering Community Abroad

Hello everyone! My name is Meredith Sullivan, and I am a senior at Wofford College. One of the reasons I chose to attend Wofford was for the numerous study abroad opportunities. When junior year came along, I had no doubt that I wanted to go abroad for a semester. Despite being the only Wofford student choosing Milan, I knew that was where I needed to go because of their business program. While I was nervous about living alone in a foreign country for five months, I was very excited and couldn’t wait to meet new people.

Upon arriving in Milan, I was thrilled to meet all the other students in my program. I was sure it would be easy to connect with these individuals who seemed to have so much in common with me; we liked to travel, had similar academic backgrounds, and were embarking on this daunting experience together. In my attempt to make connections, I attended every meet-and-greet, orientation, and welcome event. However, in a program of over 300 students in one of the largest cities in Europe, building a large group of friends and maintaining a busy schedule proved much more challenging than I expected. I found myself spending most of my time exploring the city by myself, feeling lonelier than ever.

I knew I needed to find a sense of community. That's when one of my teachers abroad introduced me to the Centro Sant’Antonio Mensa. The Mensa is a soup kitchen that provides free meals to the homeless in downtown Milan. It is located within a Catholic church and led by the friars residing in the nearby monastery. I started volunteering at the Mensa in early September and immediately FELL IN LOVE. I knew I had found "my sense of community" that seemed to be missing. Everyone was so kind and welcomed me with open arms. This was the first place during my study abroad experience where I found something I looked forward to each day.

Most of the volunteers at Mensa were born and raised in Italy, so Italian was their first language. About half spoke relatively fluent English, and conversing with them was easy. However, since my Italian was at best broken, it proved difficult to socialize with those who didn't speak my language. The other half were in the same boat as me—attempting to speak English but struggling with the language barrier. When we realized that we couldn't understand each other, we would smile, laugh, and continue with our duties.

Every day, we prepared substantial lunches for 40-60 people, depending on the day's needs. Meals and table setups were completed each morning; then we would say a prayer led by the friars, and the meal would commence. My typical task was to serve each person their main course, allowing me to interact with every guest daily. This gave me the chance to become acquainted with all our regulars and learn about their lives. Engaging with the soup kitchen guests daily was one of the greatest opportunities my time abroad provided—I was right in the heart of Italian culture, without any restrictions!

While serving our guests was a high priority, the leaders and volunteers also valued togetherness and the close-knit community that Mensa had fostered. Each morning, the volunteers and the friars would gather in the café for cappuccinos and panettone before the guests arrived. This was my favorite part of the day, where I was able to interact with everyone and learn about their families and lives.

Spending time with the volunteers and friars during each visit allowed me to get to know many of them very well. Frate Luca, Rosie, Roberto, Hattoman, and Maria-Grazia were just a few of the individuals who were so intentional and never failed to make me smile. We exchanged stories about our hometowns, discussed Milan and upcoming trips we had planned, observed the differences between American and Italian culture, and much more. My relationships with these people became so strong that Roberto invited me to his ski house, I helped celebrate Maria-Grazia’s birthday party, and Frate Luca invited me over for dinner (and gave an amazing guitar performance). I would have never predicted that my Milan adventure would include sharing wine with a group of friars in the monastery.

Everyone has a unique experience when studying abroad, and it's okay if yours doesn't align with your expectations. I was fortunate enough to find a place where I discovered everything I felt was missing by volunteering at the Mensa. If you find yourself in a similar situation, are enthusiastic about serving the community you're living in, or are simply seeking companionship, I encourage you to locate a food bank or soup kitchen and volunteer while studying abroad!




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